How good was the metal slate in 2014? In making up this annual list of the six best albums of the year (because six is, of course, the most evil and thus most metal number), I realized that Mastodon, one of my favorite bands, put out an excellent album called Once More Round the Sun that didn’t make the cut. Once More Round the Sun is a delightfully fuzzy, tightly-wound bit of groovy sludge, but in my mind it fell short of the albums below.
But those are the kinds of problems you want to have when putting together year-end lists. There was so much amazingly fantastic loud rock in 2014, and it came from all corners of the world in dozens upon dozens of different forms. On the list below, there’s the epic sprawl of doom, the jackhammering intensity of black metal, prog-kissed math metal, and good old-fashioned death from two good old-fashioned crews.
So with apologies to Mastodon, YOB, the Atlas Moth, Triptykon, Witch Mountain, Thou, the Oath, Agalloch, Demonic Resurrection, Coffinworm, and Indian, here are the six best metal albums of the year.
1. Pallbearer, Foundations of Burden
On their previous album Sorrow and Extinction, Pallbearer’s formula for their particular brand of cinematic doom was deceptively simple: find a groove, then slow it down on an evolutionary level, and let the stillness do the bulk of the talking. Sorrow and Extinction was the sound of the polar ice caps gradually melting—an assured destruction brought on slowly but inevitably. But the exceptional follow-up, Foundations of Burden, finds the band expanding and brightening. It’s the same powerful slow grind (four of the six tracks clock in at over 10 minutes), but it’s grand and cinematic and often stunningly gorgeous.
2. Behemoth, The Satanist
Metal is one of the few subgenres that allows its participants to age, which is why some of the best stuff being made every year is by hardened veterans. Such is the case with Behemoth, the Polish death metal outfit who basically invented the scene in their native country and have been purging themselves of demons since the early ‘90s. The Satanist is a terrifying monolith of a record, overflowing with eye-gouging intensity and guttural despair, all culminating in the desperately overpowering send-off “O Father O Satan O Sun!”
3. Hark, Crystalline
One of the more underrated bands currently working in the metal underground, Hark combines fuzzy stoner drone with prog shape-shifting and a sense of barely-definable space that provides an extra hint of psychedelic disorientation. There’s a ton of pounding and bashing, but there’s an undercurrent of lightness that keeps all of Hark’s full-length debut spry, even when it grinds through swampy stuff like “Black Hole South West.”
4. Tombs, Savage Gold
Tombs have shape-shifted over the years, re-arranging personnel and recalibrating sonically. Savage Gold is a fantastically appropriate title, as it is equal parts shiny polish and utter intensity. There’s nothing subtle about Tombs, but when the chugga-chugga on “Edge of Darkness” hits as hard as it does, who needs sophistication?
5. At the Gates, At War With Reality
Another batch of lifers, At the Gates essentially invented the concept of melodic death metal, and though they had not released an album in 19 years, they remain machete-sharp. There are no wasted notes on Reality—everything is remarkably tight and insanely focused, a violent onslaught with just enough breathing room left for the “melodic” part of their style to enter. Tomas Lindberg is one of the great metal frontmen, and his kinetic charisma comes across extremely well on Reality, especially on the rousing runaway train that is “The Conspiracy of the Blind.”